Pitching at a Conference? Set Fire to the Rain!

advice animals memes  - Animal Memes: Lame Pun Coon - No Stairway to HeavenWe’re in the full swing of conference season, and one of the aspects that can make a writer gnaw their fingers down to the second joint is pitching. I’ve only done it once, so I’m no expert, but I also didn’t throw up on myself, or stare and blubber and wipe drool off myself while staring at the agent or any other combination of blowing it. I’ve heard/read horror stories of writers first experiences at this and they aren’t made up. So I thought I’d share what I did in case it helps even one other writer.

Okay, I think there’s two kinds of nerves that come into play while doing this:

  1. The Oh Shit I Have No Idea What I’m Doing nerves
  2. The Pre-Flight Jitters

I’ll share how I handled both.

The Oh Shit I Have No Idea What I’m Doing nerves

Starting about a week before my first conference, I felt like I had a big ole lead ball in my stomach and it only got worse. I had the The Oh Shit I Have No Idea What I’m Doing nerves. When I get in that state, my left brain kicks in and I go into research mode. This is natural to me and so I was surprised when I met other conference goers who’d done no preparation or even research. One hadn’t even written her book, so if she’d done research, she’d obviously missed that admonishment to never, ever do that. For others that naturally research, I probably won’t be sharing anything new, but for the others, seriously, research. What do you need to research?

  • Look up blog posts on pitching at conferences. You’ll get a feel for how other writers have experienced it, what they wore, their horror stories, etc. I even got nervous about what to wear (others obviously didn’t and went in looking like slobs) and brought 5 different outfits. Best advice I saw on this was to wear what you’d wear to your first book signing. Appearance does matter, but you don’t want to over dress. You want to look sharp and capable.
  • Look up what and how to pitch. You’ll feel more comfortable going in knowing the format and with a well-honed pitch. If you’re interested in the links I found, see my pre-conference post. Remember, this is marketing. You are not giving a book report. You want to intrigue them enough about your premise, that they HAVE to see your story.
  • Research your agents! I got seriously left-brain anal and made dossiers. Got out my label printer and made a folder for each and inside I put my one page cheat sheet. The sheet had a photo of the agent I scraped off the interwebs, their name big and bold, their agency, and then a bulleted list of facts I’d found out about them that were relevant to my project, or that I had in common with them (favorite book, etc). This was a great ice breaker when I went up to each. I’d lead in with whatever it was I had in common with them, or if I liked one of their clients, etc., and then we were rolling!

I found that once I had done these three things (which was about 2-3 days before I left for the conference) and had written my pitch, that lead ball had dissolved. I think it was knowing that I had done all that I could do to prepare myself.

One last thing I did to help with this was practice my pitch. I said it out loud to any friend or co-worker who was willing to indulge me. And I also just stood and said it out loud over and over. You can’t do it in your head or even whisper it. I did that at first to get it memorized. But when I used my full voice for the first time, it was a completely different experience. I stumbled. I said ‘uh” too many times. So out loud, folks. Full-voice out loud. On the car ride to the conference, I also said it out loud over and over.

Note: I’ve seen posts that say you shouldn’t memorize. I did, but I tried to make the lines sound casual.

Pre-Flight Jitters

Okay, so I was as prepared as I could be and had a pitch I believed in. Now I just had to do it. I did get nervous again, but each time I felt its fingers curling around my stomach I slapped it away. I would NOT let it take hold. I reminded myself that I was prepared, etc.

I have a trick I always do, dating back to high school exams, which is to envision a mental gear shift and switch it up right before I need to perform (for an exam, job interview, pitch session), I can literally feel my brain shift to a calmer, sharper state. I also remind myself that I cannot die doing this.

Another thing I did, which I found out isn’t too common (at least in the sample I took at the conference), was play my theme song in my head. Whenever I started getting the jitters, I mentally blasted the line from Adele’s song “I Set Fire to the Rain” in my head. Seriously, this works. Maybe not this song for you, but come up with some song that signifies power and confidence to you and gets your blood pumping. Then just play that little snippet mentally in your head. I found this extremely useful when my name was called to walk into the pitch room. I closed my dossier on the agent where I reviewed the bulleted list, straightened and blasted that song in my head during the whole walk to the agent’s table.

I Won’t Lie

The first agent I pitched to was over Skype and thank God, with no visual. I opened with my thing I had in common and she was extremely nice and then she said, okay so what’s your book about? My body spurted adrenaline into my system and I suddenly got nervous. But what saved me was the memorized pitch. It was like I was on auto-pilot, but not sounding like a drone about it. It was like my body was detached and I could hear myself talk. I was animated from the adrenaline and it came out sounding a tad nervous but natural. I think. Anyway, the point is, you WILL still be nervous, but if you’ve prepared yourself, you’ll get through it just fine. The agents EXPECT you to be nervous. They are nice people and they WANT to find someone at this conference to represent, so they want you to succeed. She asked for a partial and I’d forgotten to have my notebook handy and so I made a mad dash and scrambled for it (another reason I was glad there was no visual). My hands were shaking so badly I could barely read my handwriting.

I pitched to four agents that day and each asked for either a partial or a full. It got easier as each pitch happened. Thankfully my hands weren’t shaking with the others, since it was in person.

Bottom Line

Prepare yourself and then just remember: relax, the agents aren’t your enemy.

Have you pitched at a conference? How did it go? Do you have any tips on how you got through it?

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25 Responses to Pitching at a Conference? Set Fire to the Rain!

  1. Angelyn April 25, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    I love Mobile. Great post on pitching.

  2. ellaquinnauthor April 25, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Great advice.

  3. Stephanie April 25, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Angela, your posts are so helpful. This is fantastic! (Although my stomach is flopping over just reading it!) Is it bad that I think my song would be “You’re Going Down” by Sick Puppies? 😉

    • Angela Quarles April 25, 2012 at 9:58 am #

      *SLAPPING YOUR HAND* No! Pick something positive!!! Even if it’s just the Rocky theme…

      • Stephanie April 25, 2012 at 10:15 am #

        Oh, no, it’s meant as a positive! As in, the nerves are going down and the agent isn’t going to intimidate me!

        • Angela Quarles April 25, 2012 at 10:51 am #

          Oh! well then that’s good!! Thought you meant you were going down in flames or something….

  4. Tobi Summers April 25, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    Thank you so much for this post. I starred it in my Google Reader for when I start pitching. I get very left-brained researchy when I get nervous (like if I can overload with enough information, there won’t be room for nerves), so your advice makes a lot of sense to me and will definitely come in handy.

  5. Mae Clair April 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    I’ve always heard that pitching is a traumatic experience. Excellent advice and great article. I tend to overdo everything, and can fully relate to your extensive research and dossiers. That would be my safety net!

  6. Jami Gold April 25, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Fantastic post! I needed this today. :) Great suggestion on the agent dossier pages too! I’d gush more, but you just added more to my to-do list. Ack! LOL!

  7. Savannah Chase April 25, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Thank you for the wonderful advice. I’ve pitched before and honestly I was so nervous…I managed to get through it somehow..It ended up going pretty well.

  8. Ben L. J. Brooks April 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Great post, perfect timing! I was just wondering about this, as I’ve got my first pitch session next week. Thanks!

  9. merryfarmer April 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Great post! I’ve pitched at conferences several times now just for fun. Yeah, I’m weird like that. One thing that I was told to remember is that those agents and editors did not take time out of their busy schedules and spend money on transportation and hotels to reject everything. Unless you forget the English language and sneeze lime Jell-o all over their nice clothes they WILL ask for a partial at the very least. Actually, pitching at conferences can be a real ego-booster that way.

    And I love your theme song. I once had someone describe that concept to me as a “car song”. Everyone one. When you’re having a really bad day or life is getting you down you just need to go out to your car and play it and crank the volume and sing along at full blast. I knew of a hair salon owner who would send his stylists outside to listen to their car song if they were having a bad day. It works! =D

  10. jamieayres April 25, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    I’ve never pitched at a writing conference and although I’m a teacher who presents things to students on a daily basis, I still get super nervous when I present to co-workers and parents . . . so not volunteering for conference talks any time soon!

  11. Laurie April 25, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Thanks for this! I’m about to pitch at a conference for the first time in a couple of days, and I’ve been freaking out about it. How funny, that song has kinda been my “theme” song lately, too! I love Adele.

  12. Chantel Rhondeau April 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    I haven’t even been to a conference yet, but this is a very good post! I like hearing what to expect, so if I ever am able to make one, I’ll have some ideas. Sounds like you did terrific, especially for your first time out!

  13. Patrick April 25, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I’ve been to conferences, but I’ve never had it in my head to pitch. I’ve always tried to focus on not geeking out and making an ass of myself (I’ve had moderate success there). Pitching comes later, I think, after I’ve mastered self-control.

  14. susan craig April 26, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Great post, Angela. I am bookmarking this one!

  15. Writerlious April 27, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    I just discovered your blog doing a Google search on verbal pitches. I’m so glad I did!

    Thank you for sharing your experience and for the awesome advice. I’m going to my first conference in less than 4 weeks and I seriously need to psych myself up so I don’t freak out. These are great tips.

    BTW, I’m a total researcher, and a Jane Austen fan, too! :)

    (And you’re book sounds so fun –I just recently discovered steampunk. I’m reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless right now.)

  16. cparkersmith June 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Pitching is about telling a great story because WRITING is about telling a great story. Forget what the person on the other side of the table does for a living. Focus on the story you love so much that you are willing to spend hours and hours and days and weeks putting it down on paper because a great story well told is what every human being on the planet is looking for. And last I checked, editors and agents were human too. (At least most of them are. LOL)

    Seriously, do you love the story you’re trying to tell? If you do, that’s all you really need. Let that show and the person you’re pitching too will not only ask for a partial but they’ll also remember talking to you when they open your envelope. Passion and enthusiasm are rare finds in this world. USE THAT to your advantage. Most people are insecure and afraid to be alive and emotional. Be the one person that editor talks to who is alive and full of passion and you will be remembered. As will your story.

    • Angela Quarles June 21, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      Thanks! Great advice!!

    • crisgzr October 16, 2012 at 8:54 am #

      Wonderful advice! My husband offered to help me edit and each evening after work he reads a chapter and comments on the trouble spots or errors. Of course, he read the third chapter first and kept asking “Why? Who?” I turned to him and said: “Blah blah blah…” He then smiled and said “that’s your pitch!” Of course, I didn’t remember a word of what I said to him LOL

  17. crisgzr October 16, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    Angela, this is a great post. It is a lot of the advice I’ve given for preparing for an interview. Also, I never feel comfortable unless I have researched everything to death -there is a real comfort in having a head full of trivia, maybe it leaves no room for blanks.

    I once worked in an infamous place for a famous boss. I wanted to live in Boston, so I sent out 20 resumes and ended up with 25 interviews and 24 job offers! I remember how I walked into those interviews knowing that “they needed me” I felt like Wonder Woman! My tip here is to add to everything you said by believing in your heart that they need you! Of course, don’t act it but feel it and believe it!

    Your post has helped me feel so much more confidence, interviewing is one of my strong assets -now, I can look forward to it as a challenge.

    My other bit of advice is to memorize about five short SMA (save my ass) phrases. These are short 5-10 word sentences that you can say comfortably by rote while you try to figure out how to answer the question (if you are thrown a curve)
    “Oh, I was wondering if I’d get asked this. (small chuckle) I think I can the best answer you your question by saying….”
    If you can say something like without thinking, you can then think of how to answer and not give a smart ass answer, which I am prone to doing. Also, this might be good for people who can’t memorize a whole pitch.


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